September 14 is the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. Each year when it comes around, I remember when Sister Carol Marie lifted high the cross in faith.
It was late summer in California. The skies were a limpid blue. A balmy ocean breeze blew across the sand. Children were building sandcastles. Windsurfers cut like knives across the Pacific shoreline with windblown hair. And fifteen Carmelite Sisters began walking down the quarter mile-long pier clear to the end. They mingled in two’s or three’s singing and just enjoying the day before the first day of school. It was a glorious end to summer vacation.
I was one of them. Three different convents were situated within a fifteen mile radius and the sisters decided to join together at the beach before school was back in session. It was a kind of spontaneous thing, which sometimes ends up being the most fun of all.
To say the least, we did stand out at the beach. Amidst the plethora of beach-goers, we appeared as an interesting group indeed—with our veils dancing in the wind gracefully and the echoes of our songs reaching into the horizon. It was fun, peaceful, and, I would say, grace-filled. Anytime we get the opportunity to soak in the beauty of God’s creation, listening to the whish, whish, whish of the waves washing up on the shore and watching the sea gulls gliding gracefully across the sky, we discover another moment of grace.
As I said, there were fifteen of us, and it took about half an hour to meander our way to the end of the pier and another half hour to walk back.
You know, one can never predict the surprises that come our way in life. Well, this day unwrapped one most unexpected surprise. As we walked back to the shore, a young man, maybe in his twenties or early thirties was walking towards us. He kept getting closer and closer to us and that’s when we noticed that something was wrong. We weren’t quite sure what, but we could tell there was definitely something.
When he saw that we were Catholic Sisters, he broke out into such intense blasphemy which wrapped him in a darkness, so to speak. We were all so shocked that we didn’t know what to do. He seemed out of control and his face contorted in such anger, such hate, such a violent look he had. We were afraid.
Some of the sisters just opened the mouths in shocked disbelief. Others, like me, kept looking around to see if there was anyone who could help us. No one. Absolutely no one. The pier was about a quarter mile long and we were still far from the shore.
All of a sudden one of the Sisters removed the large crucifix she wore as a part of her Carmelite habit. It is about five or six inches in length, silver with an ebony inset. She held that cross as high as she could (she was only about 5 feet tall) and shouted, “In the name of Jesus, STOP!”
The man looked at the crucifix, yelled out in a low anguishing moan, “No…..o…….o.” Then he tried to shout, “Don’t hold that up. Put it down.” But our steadfast Sister Carol Marie began walking toward him, passing all of us up, and holding her crucifix even higher and in a louder voice yelled out, “In the name of Jesus, STOP!”
We all looked on, gaping at the scene and astonished at our Sister Carol Marie’s deep, active, practical faith.
That young man simply quieted down, turned around, and quietly slinked away. With head lowered, and steps faltering, he retraced his steps and returned to the shore.
Sister Carol Marie simply put her crucifix back, looked back at the rest of us, smiled and motioned for us to continue our walk. Which we did.
Well, that is the true story I wanted to share. It really happened. September 14th is the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. Each year when it comes around, I remember when Sister Carol Marie lifted high the cross in faith.
Don’t underestimate the grace of the moment, or the powerful nudging of the Holy Spirit. Of all the sisters there, only one even thought of holding high the cross of Christ in the face of such utter evil. And she did it.
Why was I surprised? Wasn’t I a believer? Wasn’t I a Carmelite Sister, a baptized Catholic almost since my birth?
Ours is a living, dynamic faith. If through the trials and vicissitudes of life we have let the light of faith grow weak, or the ardor of our faith diminish, we can as St. Paul once suggests, “fan the flame, stir up the flame, rekindle the gift, keep ablaze the gift of God . . . .” as it comes through in different translations.
A cross, a crucifix, is not an object for ornamentation. Nor is it simply a piece of jewelry. It is a sign of our faith. It encompasses the whole history of salvation and the unparalleled love of Jesus Christ.
Lately, I’ve been thinking that It is now our moment in history to lift high the cross.
By Sister Timothy Marie, O.C.D.
Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles
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